A groundbreaking work in the American experimental cinema, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's Manhatta (1920) is a meditative series of tableaus, filmed in and above the concrete canyons of New York City.
Manhatta is comprised of 65 shots, each so formally composed that it more closely resembles a painting than a film, assembled in such a way that roughly suggests a day's progression from morning to night. It depicts throngs of workers disembarking a ferry, trainyards, shipyards, and bridges. Most memorably, it pictures the majestic towers and deep valleys of the city in a way that evokes the tone of nature photography and landscape painting.
The title is derived from Walt Whitman's poem "Mannahatta," which is quoted in one of the intertitles:
High growths of iron,
toward clear skies.
The film is laced with other phrases of Whitman's poetry, including "A Song of Occupations," "A Broadway Pageant," and "City of Ships" (from the 1865 collection Drum-Taps):
City of the world
(for all races are here)
City of tall facades
of marble and iron,
Proud and passionate city.
Regardless of whether or not Manhatta was truly "the first avant-garde film produced in the United States" (so says film historian Jan-Christopher Horak), the film was not entirely unique in 1920. It is a clear descendant of the New York street scene, dating back to the 1890s (for example, the Lumiere Brothers' New York, Broadway at Union Square, 1896, or the Edison Company's Fifth Avenue, New York, 1897). The distinction between those early street scenes and Manhatta is that the 19th-century films primarily served a documentary purpose, recording the actuality of life in New York, from a pedestrian's vantage. Strand and Sheeler's camera, on the other hand, is more concerned with the aesthetic of the image. It peers out from towers and ledges high above the earth (seemingly suspended in space), it shoots past concrete railings that self-consciously obstruct the panorama, and it often reduces the people of Manhattan to specks of shadow. Rather than record the realities of specific streets and buildings, Manhatta strives instead to evoke the feeling of urban life.
Often termed a Modernist photographer, Paul Strand (1890-1976) enjoyed a career so lengthy and varied that he defies easy categorization. Greatly influenced by the work of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Lewis Hine, his images range from documentary to abstraction to portraiture.
To Strand, photography was more than an aesthetic pursuit. He believed photography could also be a politically persuasive force in modern culture. He was a founding member of the socially-active Photo League, and consorted with a number of writers and artists who were ensnared in mid-century anti-communist hysteria. Strand's political idealism is evident in the influential 1936 documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (a piece of New Deal propaganda that he helped photograph), as well as the incendiary anti-fascist screed Native Land (1942, which he co-directed, co-wrote, co-produced, and co-photographed).
To describe his art, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) coined the term Precisionism, due to his preference for clean lines and clear shapes. After struggling as a painter in Paris in the early 1900s, Sheeler taught himself the fundamentals of photography with a five-dollar Brownie camera. He went on to become a renowned commercial photographer, whose best-known body of work is a series of photographs documenting the Ford Motor Works's River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, taken in 1927.
Because Manhatta is essentially an art film, it escaped the notice of most film reviewers of the day. However, art critic Robert Hughes commented brilliantly upon the film in his 1999 book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America: "Despite the lines from Whitman's poems, Manhatta is not really Whitmanesque in feeling, because it either omits the people of New York or sees them as molecules in a crowd, abstract parts of 'one-million-footed Manhattan, unpent,' but with none of the social richness that stirred Whitman's soul. Strand and Sheeler's Manhatta is a hard, clear, abstract place: not always as grim in its alienation as Strand's 1915 photo of businessmen trailing long black chains of morning shadows as they scurry to work past the blank, tomblike windows of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Building, but depopulated enough to act as a series of signs only for itself."
To shoot the film, Sheeler obtained a French-made 35mm movie camera at a cost of $1,600. Upon the film's completion, only a handful of prints were made, for screenings in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and London. By 1949, the original negative had disappeared, and the only known surviving print was a nitrate 35mm projection print owned by the British Film Institute. TCM's presentation of Manhatta is the standard silent version created from the 35mm fine grain master supplied by the Museum of Modern Art.
Director: Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler
Cinematography: Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler
by Bret Wood